Birds who can teach us humans the real meaning of Love

Images from the book UNTAMED


Last week’s news that half the world’s wild animals have disappeared in the past 40 years should depress and anger every right-thinking person.

It’s not just exotic species we should be mourning, but British birds such as the corn bunting and the northern lapwing. Needless to say, it’s all the fault of humankind — greedy, selfish, short-sighted and thoughtless as ever. The albatross, for example, is on the verge of extinction because too often when it dives for fish it snares itself instead on the hook at the end of fishing long-lines.

If you think this isn’t your business, you couldn’t be more wrong. Ornithologist Noah Strycker’s illuminating — and, actually, rather moving — new book is a welcome reminder that we have much more to learn from the animal kingdom than we can even begin to know.

The most moving chapter is about the albatross — the romantic, majestic bird of the freezing wastelands which can have a wingspan of 12ft and fly for 2,000 miles to pick up food for their hungry chicks. Yet even though they spend interminable amounts of time on the wing, this beautiful creature mates for life.

Twenty years after the first famous dancing courtship ritual (when they face each other, stretching huge wings while they dip and canoodle) they will be nesting with the same partner. The author comments: ‘Personally I think albatrosses feel love even more intensely than we do, and available evidence seems to back me up.

The Nazca booby is unusual in the bird world as it is known for routinely slaughtering its own siblings in the nest

The Nazca booby is unusual in the bird world as it is known for routinely slaughtering its own siblings in the nest

‘No matter what category of affection you study, albatrosses beat us every time.’

Don’t forget that only about 5 per cent of the world’s 5,000 mammal species are socially monogamous. Strycker points out that about 40 per cent of new human marriages in the U.S. will end in divorce, ‘which places us on about the same level as the Nazca booby, a type of seabird known for . . . routinely slaughtering its own siblings in the nest.’

But albatrosses stay faithful and are good parents: ‘When they commit they quit the singles scene’ and ‘spend less time dancing and more time raising their chicks’.

Do you see what I mean about us needing to learn lessons from the birds?

In this, the last chapter, Strycker reaches new heights of beauty and imagination when he describes what he has seen — an albatross pair sleeping with the head of one bird pillowed on the breast of another, or tenderly caressing each other’s heads. I love that one of the world’s leading ornithologists can write: ‘Different people report seeing various things deep in the inky-black eyes of the albatross — wisdom, serenity, wilderness, peace, endurance — which are well and good, but all I see is love.’

For centuries, we have considered ourselves superior to all the other creatures who share this planet. Remote from nature, we think we know everything and exploit the members of the animal kingdom as our inferiors.

But writers such as Strycker remind us that, in many ways, they are more complete and more gifted — extraordinary and complex nations of their own, moving to an unseen music that we will never be able to hear.

THE MAGIC AND MYSTERY OF BIRDS By Noah Strycker (Souvenir Press £18)

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